Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Dark City

Grade : A+ Year : 1998 Director : Alex Proyas Running Time : 1hr 40min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

I’ll say this for “The Crow: City of Angels”- while the movie itself (which I look to review in a couple of weeks) isn’t that great, it was responsible for pointing me in the direction of “Dark City.” It was in reading about that 1996 sequel to “The Crow”- at the time, my favorite film- that I first caught wind of this follow-up film by Alex Proyas. After that, I soaked up as much information about the film- at that point going by one of two alternate titles (“Dark World” and “Dark Empire”)- as I could. When a trailer finally debuted with “Alien Resurrection” (written by another future filmmaking favorite in Joss Whedon), February couldn’t make it here soon enough.

Little did I know at the time that the film was compromised. Funny, seeing as how free-thinking and original the film was in its’ theatrical form.

Now, having finally seen Proyas’ “Director’s Cut,” I feel like I’ve seen the director’s original vision for this 1998 masterpiece (which Roger Ebert- whose commentary for the original has been indispensable listening for me- named the best of that year, and added to his “Great Movies” series in 2005). The result is a purer film, more elusive, mysterious, and every bit as enthralling as it was 11 years ago when I raced after classes to see the earliest-possible show on opening day.

Unlike some alternate cuts of great movies (I’m looking at “Apocalypse Now Redux” specifically), this new version flows as smoothly and viscerally as the film. I’ll admit, the lack of Kiefer Sutherland’s narration at the beginning was a bit jarring, but few of the other changes- added subplots, extended sequences, changed lines- feel so arbitrary. I’ve seen the film many times over the years, so I can’t speak for how the lack of narration was as a first-time viewer, but I now understand why Proyas feels it unnecessary.

However, “Dark City” was a great piece of filmmaking and storytelling even with the added narration. Proyas and his co-screenwriters- David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins,” the “Blade” trilogy) and Lem Dobbs (“Kafka,” “The Limey”)- have developed a narrative that doesn’t play all its’ cards immediately. Even up until the end we’re discovering new revelations as John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell, “The Holiday,” “Dangerous Beauty”) tries to unravel the mystery of his existence.

He awakens one night in a hotel bathroom, naked, in the tub. A light is swinging. A syringe is broken on the floor. He’s rattled. He puts on the clothes, and clues point him to a past that he can’t remember clearly. One clue is particularly unsettling- the dead body of a woman, spirals carved into her chest with a knife. He gets a phone call from Dr. Daniel Schreber (Sutherland), whose breathless voice is that of a man with little time to say what he wants to. There are a group of people after him. They are the Strangers, an alien race whose look is derived from German Expressionist films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu,” but whose mannerisms- including that of the boy- hint at something far more sinister.

This begins proper Murdoch’s race into the dark streets of this city. Proyas, cinematographer Darius Wolski (“The Crow,” the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy), and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (who would later work on “Battlefield Earth,” natch one of the WORST films of all-time), have delved deep into science fiction and film noir to create a world that reminds us of many of those genre’s greatest classics without ever being haunted by them. Among those referenced are- more prominently- Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and “M,” as well as the lower depths of noir beyond iconic classics like “The Big Sleep” and “The Maltese Falcon.” The film has rich shades of green and brown that make the atmosphere all the more foreboding as Murdoch, his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), and police inspector Bumstead (William Hurt, whose character is named after the famed production designer who worked with Hitchcock and Clint Eastwood) are digging deeper into the mysteries of the city. The film’s most iconic location is Shell Beach, which John finds a postcard for. The catch? While everyone knows it, no one can tell them how to get there.

“Dark City” is an extension of the visual world Proyas created for “The Crow,” but his story hints at later ideas he would explore further in his 2004 blockbuster “I, Robot” and this year’s underrated thriller “Knowing.” All three are fundamentally about the nature of free will. “Knowing” questions the idea that we have it by having Nicolas Cage’s character discover a pattern in tragedy that he is helpless to stop. In “I, Robot,” Issac Asimov’s Three Laws are subverted by an artificial intelligence that sees humanity’s flaws as an opportunity to enslave them, using their own free will against them.

In “Dark City,” this idea is tweaked through the idea that memories are fluid and can be taken from humans, and mixed in a way that can be studied, allowing the Strangers to get to the core of what makes humans unique. If we’re imprinted with the memories of a murderer, will we continue in that vein? If we’re imprinted with a love for another person, will we actually love them? These are two of the ideas Proyas explores with unexpected intelligence in this film. John and Emma- beautifully embodied by Sewell and Connelly, whose slight detachment at the start is crucial to the film’s emotional arc in the end- are the two test subjects the Strangers are looking to observe. But while John doesn’t behave like a killer because his imprint was never completed, Emma gets to the heart of this question in her pivotal scene with John, when she explains to him “I love you, John. You can’t fake something like that,” even though they only actually met a little while ago. The fact that they’ve been “programmed” to feel that way by the Strangers doesn’t make their obvious commitment to one another- illuminated by Trevor Jones’ haunting love theme, a highlight of his fantastic and evocative score- less meaningful. By this time in the film, we know her feelings are genuine, and get to the heart of what the Strangers are searching for…the soul. As Murdoch says later, “You were looking in the wrong place.”

“Dark City” was a movie made on the cheap (reasonably speaking, $27 million is cheap for a film of this scope), half of what “The Matrix”- which shot on some of the same sets, and came out a year later to more acclaim and success- cost. It didn’t find much of an audience in theatres, despite Ebert’s (and others) strong recommendation. It later became an early success on DVD and a cult favorite in the manner of other futuristic works like “Brazil” and others. Eleven years later, it looks more and more like one of the richest and most important genre films of not just the past 30 years, but in all of cinema. I had the good fortune to see it in theatres, but while nothing can compare to that experience, both its’ original and the recent Director’s Cut DVD releases do the film justice in the way that it truly deserves.

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